Bhavana Yoga

Before Patanjali and before Buddha there was yoga. The word ‘yoga’ is derived from Proto-Indo-European *yewg- ‎(“to join”) which evolved from the Sanskrit root yuj. Yuj is the root of the word we know as ‘yoke’ suggesting the practice of ‘harnessing’ as in harnessing an ox to a cart. Yoga takes the idea of harnessing and applies it to the taming of the body, speech and mind. We usually use the word discipline to describe this process. Although discipline has acquired a bad name because of its association with punishment, in ancient India and throughout recorded history, individuals became highly regarded as wisdom teachers if they demonstrated superior self-discipline.  However, the word that describes the discipline is softer, it is bhavana, and actually  refers to the cultivation of wholesome character traits through nurture and support rather than force. 


The ability to moderate behavior in the service of personal and community goals evolved early in the history of civilization. By 1000 BCE these self-discipline practices began to be systematically developed in India. By 500 BCE there was a wandering group of ascetics known as sramanas or wanderers who took self-discipline to its extreme. To illustrate their discipline, these wanderers had renounced the pleasures of life to practice austerities like self-starvation and various forms of self-inflicted pain like standing on one foot, holding the breath, or sitting completely still in meditations of a variety of sorts. Those who were able to master the impulses of their body, speech and mind (like the Buddha, Mahavira and others) became highly revered masters of yoga. Sometimes the practices developed in the context of a spiritual philosophy but many of these masters promoted their own philosophy asserting that their practices were superior to the practices of other masters. All of it has culminated in what we know today as Yoga.  


Yoga has two components, the practices or orthopraxy and the beliefs or the orthodoxy.  The practices of Yoga include a variety of activities like breath control and meditation, that were purported to lead to self-mastery and the potential for a transcendental experience. There were also a set of beliefs and philosophies about what those transcendental experiences mean e.g., union with a divine nature, an experience of self-realization, liberation from samsara, oneness with the universe, etc. Although it is possible that the beliefs drove the practices, it seems to me just as likely that the meditative practices drove the belief systems. Our nervous systems seem to have evolved a tendency to notice and create patterns and then to confabulate or invent reasons for the patterns that may or may not be accurate indications of underlying processes (see Mlodinow, 2013 and Shermer, 2012). 


The early yogis who were good at these meditation practices certainly had transcendental experiences. Transcendental experiences have driven spiritual beliefs throughout the history of religious practices. One characteristic of the most transformative of these experiences is that we have the complete conviction that our experience reflects a deeper and truer reality than can be seen with our conventional senses (Newberg and Waldman, 2016). Unfortunately, all of these views of ultimate reality cannot be true. Either there is a soul or there isn’t. Either we go to heaven and hell or we are reincarnated as higher or lower beings depending on our karma. It seems as if several early teachers understood that including the Buddha.  We see this in the sutta on the Blind Men and the Elephant (Ud 6: 67-69 Bodhi) which has been modernized in the poem about the wise men and the elephant by Godfrey Saxe.  


Buddha makes it clear that it is folly to hold to fixed beliefs when our knowledge is limited by what we see, hear, feel and experience with our own sense organs. We cannot trust our own mind. Where does that leave us? If we can’t trust the philosophies of spiritual teachers, what do we trust? We trust the practices, the orthopraxy, that have led the sages of the world to wisdom. In The Life of Pi, Pi didn’t quite understand why it wasn’t okay to pray to the Hindu Gods, the Christian God and to the Allah of the Muslims. Although Pi was looking for God in his prayer practice, I was looking for a way to be happy.  Later as a psychologist, I was looking for a way to help reduce the suffering of my patients, to make them happy. In my search for what yoga could offer, I went to Yogaville, the ashram of the late Satchidananda and was deeply impressed by the gallery of tribute to spiritual leaders of all of the world’s religions in the Lotus Temple. 


The philosophy underlying this gallery was “one truth, many paths”. Although I wasn’t sure about the “one truth” notion because I don’t trust my mind’s ability to know absolute truth, I could certainly see the “many paths” notion and it seemed to me that it was the path that was primary, not necessarily where it was going. As one followed the spiritual path, perhaps wisdom, if not truth, would be revealed.  As I practiced myself, I also began to understand that I was mostly interested in the practices of the path, the orthopraxy, not the beliefs or philosophy. 


The Buddhist version was particularly helpful with its teachings about how to recognize suffering, the causes of suffering and how to stop suffering through the practices of the ethics, mind training and the cultivation of wisdom.  Although the Yoga Sutras are the primary resource for many of today’s yoga teachings, they were written well after the Buddha and incorporated many of his core principles. Gradually I came to consider the Pali Canon rather than the Yoga Sutras as at least as fundamental as the practice of Patanjali’s Yoga. The integration of these two paths became Bhavana Yoga. There are several practices described in the Yoga Sutras that merit inclusion on the path to Wisdom and although they were likely to have been practiced in Buddha’s six years of study with the yoga masters of the time, he either found them lacking in some way or he did not find them useful. In the case of the extreme ascetic practices, Buddha believed that the practices actually interfered with the release from suffering. It is not clear how many of the less austere practices were important in the mental training that led to his enlightenment so we would do well to explore those practices as well. 


Psychology and neurology have documented the benefit of some of the practices proposed in both Yoga and Buddhism.  Bhavana Yoga includes the practices that are most consistent with the modern, scientific view of how to cultivate health and well being. We advocate ethical behavior, mindfulness and meditation, exercise and moderate eating for a healthy body and study for a healthy mind.